Checking out the Science of Science

An interesting article published in Science Magazine looks at the Science of Science (SciSci).  The promise is that when Science studies itself through an iterative process, it will better itself, thus better the world.  

Science as a subject for itself is fair enough, although it does raise the question of what SciSci looks at when it looks at Science.  One plausible answer is demonstrably quantifiable Science artifacts — a fancy way of saying looking at wiring under the board of Science for stuff we can measure.  

The article explains Science as “a complex, self-organizing, and evolving network of scholars, projects, papers, and ideas,” which is odd as the description is missing the Scientific Method.  However, the framing of Science in this manner is vital as it relates to the method of examination used in the article. In this view, Science is primarily an iterative social process of knowledge production that establishes itself in complex networks of artifacts.  These artifacts, like books and articles, mean that Science is intertextual, it is an idea rooted in a system of texts. However, there seem to be various other artifacts of Science to examine quantitatively too, as an example, who pays for the study, what came of the research, partnerships, scientist moving around institutions, and citations.  SciSci’s examination of these all-inclusive elements delineates some of the backings of Science as a forward-moving social process.

The big idea of SciSci, seemingly, is that a greater understanding of what supports Science leads ultimately to a healthier world.  That Science can give us better Science ultimately means enabling us to do better things. A rather rosy picture of Science that seems to forget all of the bad stuff but, still, nonetheless reasonably accurate. 

The article goes on about problem selection, career projections, collaborations, and citation analysis, which are telltale signs of the transdisciplinary.  SciSci spans scientometrics, innovation studies, econometrics, statistics, “network science approaches, machine-learning algorithms, mathematical analysis, and computer simulation, including agent-based modeling.”  Combined, these disciplines form a net made of quantitative interlocking methodologies that can examine the underlying structure of Science, so they say. 

Early in the article, an example of the type of SciSci findings is given, “finding that small teams tend to disrupt Science and technology with new ideas drawing on older and less prevalent ones. In contrast, large teams tend to develop modern, fashionable ideas, obtaining high, but often short-lived, impact.”  So the results of the SciSci method may allow for strategies to stimulate scientific development and in turn, make the world a better place. Perhaps.

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A Lesson From Professional Wrestling

When I was a young lad watching professional wrestling, every now and then the heels (bad guys) would get the titles, usually by cheating the face (good guys). In the mind of a kid, it was dark times when the bad guys held the belts, it usually meant good guys getting beaten without mercy, referees distracted long enough for the bad guys to do something dastardly and get away with it, the wrestling universe was in discord. Dark times in the mind of a kid.

But the good guys would keep on fighting the battles with honor and valor despite the fix. And in time, despite all the cheating and tomfoolery, the good guys got the belts back, peace and justice were restored.

Wrestling ethics are mainly deontological (as in rule-based) and virtue (as in good person) framed in a meritocracy. There is a contest with fair rules by which contestants are to abide, let the better wrestler win. The world isn’t naturally a meritocracy, nature is impassive, but there is a human feeling that it should be when it comes to human culture and when it is broken we feel it.

Good vs. Evil is too simplistic a concept in a postpostmodern technocratic information society, and my childish feelings towards evildoers in tights may not be the most imaginative way of commenting on the social malaise of the times. But for some, it feels like we are living in dark times and that resonates with the young wrestling fan in me.

The full weight of history’s unraveling presses on us, the toxification of the planet, the social and economic injustice, and the pressures of technology and more conspire against us. There are tyrannical governments that do not recognize human rights, greedy corporations that exploit all between the earth and the sky, creepy lobbyists greasing the wheels of government, those on the take, and plain old fraudsters. If the world was a wrestling show, it looks like the bad guys are winning the belts.

Hulk Hogan, represented everything good and holy in America, he would battle relentlessly despite the odds. With oversized oiled muscles in stretched primary colors and with the spirit of a street preacher, he raved about the power of Hulkamania to his Hulkamaniacs. I was enthralled, I too wanted justice in the face of bad guys, I also was a proud Hulkamaniac.

Older and wiser I have moved on from hero worship and come to have a critical eye when it comes to Hulkamania, but I can’t shake that sense of youthful empowerment in the face of doom. Perhaps Hulkamania is for the absurdist hero, a desperate rally in the front of the abyss or inspiration for someone who doesn’t care about the odds.

And for me, that is the magic. In the face of crooked managers, blind ref’s, and steel chairs the good guys kept on battling virtuously. The dramatic heroics are cartoonish, I grant you, but none the less emblematic of an absurdist hero.

If we are in dark times, perhaps it is best to muster up some absurdist hope. From years of watching wrestling promos, one can marshal the intonations of a raging street preacher and channel the genuine overriding belief that the good will prevail just because.

Image result for hulk hogan

Humility

I had a great philosophy class on Kant one summer long ago in my undergrad life.  What I recall the most was debating the teacher, on what I don’t really remember but I was pleased that I was being taken seriously.  I know I got crushed, my assumptions of the world torn asunder, my logic exposed as fallacious, but my ego was fine. It was honest scrutiny, nothing personal.  And I took that notion to heart, the idea that examining cherished beliefs is different than judging a person.

It was awesome.

In scrutiny done right, you are questioned into doubting your own assumptions, cornered by your own entailments, and come to a realization of why you are wrong or at least wrong in some view.  And as things become less concrete and more contingent, a taste for ambiguity replaces the pang of angst when confronted by incertitude, yet at the same time faith in your own reasoning becomes more credible to yourself.  You thought it through, you did the maths.

A kind of Taoistic unlearning has to happen, an unwinding of the ego.  A life of understanding requires a humble openness to where the evidence takes you.  It is never a question of being right as much as a question of being less wrong which makes things less of a trial and more of an experiment.